The following is excerpted from The Quest for Hermes
Trismegistus
, available from Steiner Books.

In
Plato, Shamanism, and Ancient Egypt, the
writer Jeremy Naydler argues that there is good reason to believe that Plato
and other Greek philosophers journeyed to Egypt in order to receive some form
of initiation. In Plato's case, according to Naydler, this led to his
philosophy — to which, as Alfred North Whitehead remarked, all subsequent
western thought is merely a footnote, which suggests that a book on The Egyptian Roots of Western Philosophy
remains to be written. Exactly what Plato and the others received may not be
absolutely clear, but Naydler believes that by trying to understand Plato's
relationship to Egypt, we can gain a firmer grasp, not only on Plato's ideas,
but also on "that deep current of thought and spiritual practice known as the
Hermetic tradition."

Naydler
argues that some form of shamanism was involved in ancient Egyptian spiritual
practice. Naydler points out that the central narrative in Egyptian mythology
is the story of Osiris' dismemberment at the hands of his evil brother Set and
his resurrection by his consort Isis, and argues that this is paralleled in the
dismemberment motifs in shamanic initiation rituals. He also argues that the
journey of the soul through the underworld — what the Egyptians called the Duat — as described in the Book
of the Going Forth By Day
, otherwise known as Egyptian Book of the Dead, can
be found in shamanic ritual, as can be the idea of a spiritual ascent, which is
another Egyptian theme. In both shamanic and Egyptian religious accounts, this
ascent to the sky takes place via wings or a kind of ladder, and it should come
as no surprise that a parallel idea appears in the Hermetic notion of a journey
through the planets to the "Eighth sphere." That Plato described a version of
this stellar ascent too, suggests for Naydler that his version and the Hermetic
one stem from the same source.

Predictably,
for 'official' Egyptology, Naydler's ideas put him the lunatic camp, as most
mainstream Egyptologists reject the notion of Egyptian shamanism. They reject
it because, Naydler argues, they are fixated on the funerary interpretation of
Egyptian religious texts, such as the Egyptian
Book of the Dead
. Like the Tibetan
Book of the Dead
, the Egyptian Book
of the Dead
is a collection of hymns, spells, incantations, magical 'power
words,' and instructions used to guide the soul of the deceased in the
after-world; unlike the Tibetan Book of
the Dead
, however, the Egyptian Book
of the Dead
, which is much older, is
an often wildly heterogeneous assembly of writings, gathered over millennia,
and is not really a book at all, at least not in the modern sense. Its earliest 'chapters,' known as the Pyramid Texts, were written on the walls of the tombs
of the pharaohs circa 2350-2175 BC, but originated in sources much earlier; the
practice of mummification and concern for the afterlife can be dated to at
least 3100 BC, and according to the occult scholar Lewis Spence, an inscription
on the sarcophagus of Queen Khnem-Nefert, of the 11th Dynasty (circa
2500 BC) states that a chapter of the Book
of the Dead
was discovered in the reign of Hosep-ti, the fifth king of the
1st Dynasty, "who flourished about 4266 BC."

We
may take Spence's remark with a grain of salt, but the fact remains that the
material making up the Book of the Dead is
at least five thousand years old. Later parts of it, circa 1700 BC, came from
what are known as the Coffin Texts, writings found on the sides of wooden
coffins, or contained in scrolls placed with the dead. Although originally
reserved for the pharaohs, this sort of Rough
Guide
to the afterlife gradually became available to anyone who could
afford a scribe to copy it out. Perhaps the most well known version is the Papyrus of Ani, a copy of the Book of the Dead made for the scribe Ani
circa 1240 BC, which contains the famous illustration of the god Anubis
weighing Ani's heart on the scale of Ma'at, the goddess of justice. Late
versions appeared with blank spaces for the names of individuals not yet dead.
Initially the privilege of an elite, the spiritual rebirth associated with the
journey through the underworld became over time something more democratic.

Yet
while the funerary aspect of the Book of
the Dead
was certainly made use of, Naydler argues that the text had
another, more central use. It was, he believes, a manual on how to "practise
dying," a method of learning how to experience the separation of the soul from
the body, which normally happens only in physical death, while still alive.
Naydler argues that as this was also the aim of Plato's philosophy — the Phaedo famously argues that philosophy
is a "preparation for death" — there is good reason to believe that rather than
merely picking up an idea that was 'in the air,' Plato learned it at first hand
from the priests at Heliopolis. The belief that one's nous, or mind, was
immortal while one's body was subject to death and decay was, as a central
theme of the Hermetic teachings, and this suggests that, rather than
repackaging Platonic ideas – as some have argued the Corpus Hermeticum does — both it and Plato's philosophy originated
from the same source.

 

Body and Soul

As anyone who has
studied them knows, ancient Egyptian religious ideas are complex and often
seemingly contradictory, with gods appearing in multiple forms and new gods
often being worshipped alongside old. Creation myths, for example, vary and
often seem the result of competing priesthoods vying for ascendancy. And it's
understandable that a reading of the Book
of the Dead
, with its many demons and monsters that the soul must overcome, can give the impression that the
Egyptians were a morbid, superstitious people. Yet what may seem contradictory
on the surface can present a different aspect when viewed as the Egyptians
themselves may have viewed it, that is, symbolically. If, as the Egyptian
scholar R.T. Rundle Clark remarks, "it has come to be realized that Egyptian
art is nearly all symbolism," one can expand this and say that for these "deeply
God-conscious people," their myths were symbolic too.

The Egyptians, Rundle Clark argues, "used
their myths to convey their insights into the workings of nature and the
ultimately indescribable realities of the soul," and were not, as some more
mainstream Egyptologists suggest, a superstitious people who believed in
animal-headed deities, although, to be sure, the common people may have had rather
simple ideas about religion, just as some Christians might still believe that
God is a white-bearded old gentleman on a throne. That is, the Egyptians used
myths and symbols to express ideas. And according to Rundle Clark, they seemed
to concentrate on two central themes: to explain the structure of the universe
and how it came into being, and to describe the origin and development of
consciousness.

One
of the most complex aspects of Egyptian religion is their notion of the soul,
or, put more precisely, the physical and non-physical components making up a
human being. According to the Egyptians, human beings are made up of nine
different but related entities, each of which has its own form of afterlife.
The khat is the physical body, which
must be kept secure after death, hence mummification. The ka is a kind of 'astral' double, that inhabits the body during
life, but which is freed in death, and can enter other forms, like statues or
representations of the deceased. The ba is
what we would consider the soul, or inner identity or consciousness. The sekhem is a kind of life force, what in
theosophical terms we can call the 'etheric' body, which animates the matter of
the khat. The ab is one's moral consciousness, the sahu the intellect and will, and the khabit is a kind of shadow, like the ka but different. But perhaps the most important part of the soul
is what the Egyptians called the akh.
This is our divine essence, an incorruptible spiritual body which has the
potential to escape from the earthly realm entirely and dwell among the stars,
and even to pass beyond them. While each of the other parts are subject to
certain limitation, the akh, which is
also the means by which we acquired divine insight and wisdom, is likened to
the gods. So, in essence, in our akh,
we too are gods.

The
ba is usually depicted as a bird with
a human head, hovering over the body of the deceased; to modern eyes these
depictions resemble accounts of ‘out-of-the-body-experiences,' which suggests
that the body depicted may not be dead at all. The human headed bird symbolized
the idea that for the Egyptians the soul resided in the head – an idea, Naydler
points out, that they shared with the Greeks — and that it could rise above the
body, that is, could be separated from it. Naydler remarks that this notion of
the ba was not, as most Egyptologists
believe, a common belief, but was reserved for the priests; that is, it formed
part of the esoteric, rather than exoteric, religious teachings. The ba can separate from the body during
sleep or at death, but it could also be separated during a third state, of
trance, or deep relaxation. For the ba to
rise above the body, Naydler argues, "the central requirement was that the
psycho-physical organism be stilled." "The ba
only comes into its own," he writes, "when the body is inactive and inert."
This is strikingly similar to the state the sage Hermes Trismegistus was in
when he received gnosis from Poimandres, the Universal Mind.

Naydler
points out that for the ancient Egyptians, as for the Greeks, consciousness
wasn't, as it is for us, located solely in the brain. For both the Egyptians
and the Greeks, consciousness was located in different forms in different parts
of the body. Naydler refers to Homer's account in the Iliad and the Odyssey,
where he speaks of waking consciousness being located in the chest, and of
other forms of consciousness being dispersed throughout the rest of the body,
in the limbs, heart, hands, etc. This suggests that for the Homeric Greeks, the
body wasn't perceived as a unity, but as an association of different parts,
each with their own consciousness. Naydler points out that these Greeks had no
singular word for the living body, but usually referred to it in the plural,
and that soma, which means ‘body' in
our sense, was used to refer to a corpse.
While the Egyptians shared this notion of a multiple bodily consciousness
with the Greeks of Homer's epics, they had a very different idea of the soul,
or psyche, than the Greeks. For the
early Greeks, the psyche was rather
more like our modern idea of a ghost, a kind of insubstantial wraith or eidola, a faint image of the deceased that is released on death, and that
has a reduced form of existence in the underworld, as Ulysses discovered during
his sojourn there. The dead Ulysses meets are like vapours rising from a swamp,
and long to return to life. When we speak of someone being "a shadow of their
former self," we are speaking of them as early Greeks did the soul. For these
Greeks, physical reality was paramount, and any kind of afterlife was an
unsatisfying shadowy affair.

For
the Egyptians the ba had a more 'concrete' existence, to speak metaphorically about something purely spiritual.
While the body was active, its noise and demands obscured the ba. But when the body was silent, the ba could be known. In order to
experience the ba consciously — that
is, while awake and alive — it was necessary to withdraw consciousness from the limbs and inner organs, and to
concentrate it, to gather it into a
unity in the head, which seems rather like the "godlike concentration of
consciousness" that Hermes tells his disciples must be attained before they can
receive the "knowledge of God." When the soul forces were thus concentrated and
the body quiet, the ba could awaken,
and the ‘I' could feel itself to be an independent entity, not dependent on or
restricted to the body's limitations. As the ba is our inner self, our sense of identity, what this means is
that we, who usually associate our self with our body, become directly aware of
our independence of it. We inhabit a body, but during these states of profound
physical relaxation and inner concentration, we realize that 'we' are not 'it.'

 

Practise Dying

One result of
experiencing the ba's independence is
the recognition that consciousness can exist outside of a physical body and
brain, which suggests that it is not necessarily subject to the body's decay.
Or, to put it another way, that a part of us isn't subject to death. Yet,
paradoxically, to arrive at this insight, one must "practise dying." Naydler
suggests that this was the secret of the Egyptian Mysteries, or one of them at
least, and given that, as is the case with the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries
of Greece, we have very little information about exactly what went on in these,
he may very well be right. The Greek historian Herodotus, who tells us he
witnessed the Egyptian mysteries at Sais, is infuriatingly coy, and after
keenly piquing our interest about them, decides to keep mum. Naydler argues
that after his initiation, Plato developed these ideas into his own philosophy,
and that dialogues like the Cratylus,
the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, and the Republic
all contain important elements of the Egyptian mysteries, elements that can
also be found in the Corpus Hermeticum.
One is that, with the recognition that the ba
or soul can exist independently of the body, and that the way of realizing
this is to "practise dying," paradoxically, the body itself is seen to be a
kind of tomb.

As Plato says in the Cratylus,
the body (soma) "is the tomb (sema) of the soul, which may be thought
to be buried in our present life." That Plato refers to the Pythagoreans as the
source of this knowledge is for Naydler strong evidence that its origin is
Egyptian; Pythagoras, too, tradition has it, went to school in Egypt. That the
authors of the Corpus Hermeticum may
have had the same teacher — or at least the same lesson — is suggested by Book
VII, where it is said that in order not to be carried away by the great flood
of ignorance, the seeker of gnosis must "strip off the garment" he is wearing,
the body, which is referred to as the "sentient corpse" and "portable tomb." It
is in this sense that Socrates, in the Phaedo,
declares that "true philosophers practise dying," and it is in this sense that
the Egyptian Book of the Dead,
Naydler argues, is concerned with dying, and not solely in the literal way that
proponents of its funerary use argue.

Another
Egyptian idea that Naydler finds in Plato, and which can also be found in the
Hermetic books, is the notion of the akh.
The akh, as mentioned, is that part
of our inner being that can be considered divine. It has the potential to
escape entirely from earthly and even cosmic limitations, and it is through the
akh that we can receive divine wisdom
and insight. Once the ba is seen to
be independent of the body, then it is possible to come to know the akh, which was seen by the Egyptians as
luminous and associated with the sun, and which, after death or through the
ritual of the mysteries, found its place among the stars. Naydler argues that
the akh found its equivalent in
Plato's philosophy in the form of the daimon,
or, as Plato sometimes refers to it, nous. And as for the Egyptians, one who
has realized his akh, or, more
accurately, become akh, is filled
with divine wisdom and can find his place as a star in the cosmos, for Plato,
the philosopher who comes to know the Form of the Good — the highest knowledge
possible — also rises to the stars.

From this vantage point, Plato writes in
the Phaedrus, he "stands on the back of
the universe" and can perceive through nous — not his senses — the unmanifest
Reality "behind" or "before" the cosmos. Naydler suggests that an illustration
from the tomb of Ramses III of the pharaoh looking out beyond the stars while
standing on two entwined serpents that encircle the cosmos, is a depiction of Plato's
account of "standing on the back of the universe." The similarity between these
two ideas and that of the Hermetic ascent to the Eighth and Ninth spheres
should be apparent, and in the Asclepius,
Hermes Trismegistus tells his students that "there is a place beyond heaven
where there are no stars."